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Even in Bad Times, Colleges Can Make Education Pay Off

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One in two new graduates is jobless or underemployed. This conclusion from a recently completed Associated Press study is eye-popping. Released just as many high school seniors are finalizing decisions on where to attend college, and as college graduation ceremonies take place across this country, the headline begs for a response from university presidents such as myself. This is a time for university leaders to be clear and direct about what we at Clark University refer to as the Return on Education.

The AP study estimated that 53.6 percent of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years. The study reported that college graduates who majored in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level; those with nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely. In short, for many college graduates the transition from college to career is not immediately successful, and in the current economic context this transition has gotten harder.

What conclusions might students and their families draw from the AP study? Here are three takeaways that I share with prospective students, families, graduates and alumni of Clark University:

First, we are indeed in a period of profound change in the world of work, driven by global competition, technology change, and the rise of a knowledge economy. Overall, these shifts are increasing the return on a college education, not reducing it as the AP headline might suggest.

How can that be? While it is true that unemployment has risen among college graduates in the current recession, the unemployment rate for high school graduates has increased even more. Similarly the income gap between college graduates and adults with a high school education has grown markedly over this past 30 years of transformational change in the economy and workplace. Unemployment is lower and incomes are higher, on average, among graduates as compared to those who did not complete college. The key is to make careful and informed decisions about the costs of and return on your education.

Second, the transition from college to career is changing, and universities are responding in innovative and important ways. Employers are looking for proven capability on the part of college graduates they hire. The conundrum that college students face is how to build and demonstrate their "value added" at the point of graduation, whether this is the ability to think critically about problems, work effectively as part of a team, or make informed decisions under conditions of uncertainty. At Clark University we have responded to this challenge with the launch of a new model of liberal education that we call Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP). This model affords students a wide variety of new opportunities to put their education to work in the world, develop the skills and capabilities that are crucial to success in the world of work, and build a sturdy bridge from college to career.

Third, it is the case that this country needs more scientists, engineers, and others well-educated in the STEM fields. But this does not mean that students and their families must make choices on what to study based on a narrow mapping of what fields are hiring today. That approach is too limiting and flawed in two ways. First, surveys of major employers confirm that the skills and capabilities of greatest importance are broad-based, including the capacity to approach a problem with creative and critical thinking, to communicate effectively, to act with integrity, and be resilient in the face of difficulty. These are features of a good college education, rather than the purview of any particular major. Second, we know that many of the jobs and careers that will be important in the decades ahead have not yet been invented. College education must prepare students for both their near-term transition to career, but also for a lifetime of rapid change in the economy and the workplace.

None of this is to lessen the challenge facing college students as they graduate into one of the most difficult economies of our time. In the near term, it is important that we find new ways to support recent graduates as they find their footing. We should also check back in on this generation of graduates a decade or more from now. I am confident that while the path for many will be daunting, we will once again affirm the return on education for our students, for our communities, and for our country.